Editorial: Spending for grape center no laughing matter

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The ink was barely dry on the omnibus spending bill signed last week by President Obama when political pundits and critics of the fledgling commander in chief began poking fun at earmarks in the bill.

A few of multi-million dollar projects they called “pork-barrel” — or wasteful — included:

- $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa;

- $2 million “for the promotion of astronomy” in Hawaii;

- $6.6 million for termite research in New Orleans;

- $2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York.

The grape genetics center, which would be at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, has been in line for funding for more than five years, but has always failed to “make the cut” when the bill is signed into law.

That won’t be the case this year, and the benefits of the center — to local grape growers, wineries and the New York state's wine industry in general — could be substantial.

Employees at the center would collaborate with more than 20 researchers at Cornell University, conducting research in grape breeding, cultivation, crop protection and oenology (wine science).

The results of their work could pay off big time for the state’s wine and grape industry, which already generates $6 billion a year in sales.

The center, however, does have its critics and among them is a political powerhouse: Sen. John McCain. Last year’s Republican nominee for president and a longtime foe of earmarks recently made fun of the center in an Internet blog, saying “quick, peel me a grape.”

It was another “name” politician, former Vice President Walter Mondale, who summed up the political sentiment on pork-barrel spending in a cautionary tale to then-President Jimmy Carter, who axed numerous earmarks — some championed by his fellow Democrats — during his time in office. The bad blood between the miffed members of Congress and Carter led to a split in the Democratic Party, and the resultant paralysis in Congress helped open the door for Ronald Reagan.

“In a democracy,” Mondale said, “someone’s waste is another person’s treasure.”

Mondale’s words still ring true, and for every project that looks worthwhile on the surface, there are those that just seem silly, such as $500,000 for the Montana World Trade Center; $200,000 for a tattoo removal program in Los Angeles so ex-gang members can shed visible signs of their past; and $150,000 to rid an Alaskan island of rats. The latter was a pet project of former Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, advocate of the infamous “bridge to nowhere.”

And lest you think we’re just picking on projects from other states, there have been some silly ones from New York. One was a million dollars in last year’s omnibus bill for the Woodstock Museum (think concert, not Snoopy’s bird buddy). It was later taken off the table by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer.

One that did get through, though, was $1.9 million for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. Named after the longtime Democratic congressman from Harlem, it’s been dubbed the “Monument to Me.”

So, when it comes to “pork” spending, there are often two sides to the coin. For those who could benefit from the grape genetics center, the $2.1 million earmark is money well spent.

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